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Matters of grace: My president sang

Jennie Young, Community Voices Columnnist • Jan 31, 2019 at 7:00 AM

By recent Gallop polling, Michelle Obama is the most respected woman in America and Barack Obama the most respected man, by creditable margins. Michelle’s new book sets sales records, and she’s needed gymnasium-size venues for her extended book tour. Her approval rating has remained high, hovering around a bipartisan 80 percent. I don’t think it’s only significant accomplishments during their scandal-free tenure as president and first lady that drives America’s respect for these two. It’s deeply principled character and the simple, dignified elegance which shapes their lives.

Grace has to do with courteous goodwill, simple elegance or refinement of movement, or in matters of faith, the free and unmerited favor of God. By whatever definition, it’s always recognizable and reassuring. As I watch, with dismay and embarrassment, the current president play out his idea of barely acceptable conduct in the highest office, the notion of grace often comes to mind, but from its conspicuous absence.

I recently heard Joan Baez’s new song, “The President Sang Amazing Grace” and calming memories flooded in of the consummate grace of Barack and Michelle Obama. To paraphrase her song, a young man entered a house of prayer in Charleston, a welcomed stranger. Who sat with them for an hour and seemed to pray before drawing a gun to kill nine, both old and young. Some time later, mourners gathered with the President, with cameras and microphones broadcasting to the nation. Words about one man’s hate, the nation’s shame, some sickness of the mind or soul and how to heal.

And the refrain: “But no words could say what must be said / For all the living and the dead / So on that day and in that place / The President sang “Amazing Grace” / My President sang “Amazing Grace.” Nothing better epitomizes for me the nature of the man who was last our president than that moment. He was one with Charleston mourners and all of us, speaking to our better angels. Not contrived for a photo op but naturally so.

The current occupant not only cannot empathize with suffering people —  devastated by natural disaster or some hate-filled assault like the Charleston tragedy — he conducts his presidency, and his life, without deference to morality and decency or national character and norms. It seems a waste of words to say he conducts his presidency — and life — absent of grace.

He’s often called amoral, and not just by Democrats, because, by all indications, he is. An amoral person is one who shows no concern about whether behavior is morally right or wrong. There are spheres, like evidence-based science, where moral judgments don’t apply. The current president of the United States, for all practical purposes, includes himself in that sphere.

The United States, with her amoral president, is one of many countries with claims to social justice, where norms for governance, by necessity, have to be based on principles of morality, fairness, decency, tolerance and openness, principles the president might as well publicly decry. Trump’s affinity and admiration for the autocratic, anti-democratic leaders of Russia, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia and Turkey should say enough for those with ears to hear.

If his business and personal history and now-known-to-be-fraudulent charitable foundation is any indication, this is no new thing. It’s who the man, whom Republicans installed in the highest office of the land, is and has been. His performance during the campaign hid none of his true nature, yet he was ushered in. To our credit, it wasn’t due to popular mandate but, in all likelihood, to an ill-thought legal quirk in our electoral process — and authenticated Russian help.

When, I wonder, will Republicans swallow their pride and admit they’ve entered a devil’s bargain. It isn’t just Trump’s history as sexual libertine or his constant stream of lies, criminally fraudulent business dealings, callous indifference to his ignorance, staggering incompetence, fear of prominent supporters like Coulter and Limbaugh, capacity for cruelty, reliance on chaos and undermining the nation‘s interest to serve his own.

Five close associates have pleaded guilty and another indicted (so far) in connection with his campaign. It’s even known that our non-partisan FBI reacted to distressing indications that the president of the United States might wittingly or unwittingly be or have been acting as a Russian agent and began investigations. His overt actions and deference to Putin’s fondest dreams about world order provide plenty of grist for that mill. That he frames it all as “fake news” and/or “witch hunt” somehow continues to satisfy his supporters.

I hear or read of individuals who act with courage, wisdom, generosity and grace and am reassured because deep down that’s how we most want to be, as individuals and as a nation. Then the inevitable deflating thought: And Donald Trump is our president.

Grace is foundational to all matters of positive human interaction, and it should both frighten and mobilize all of us, regardless of political affiliation, when little seems present, nor is sought, at the top of our government.

Jennie Young of Elizabethton is a retired language arts teacher.

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